Nicosia: Nicosia held its first Greek Cypriot gay pride parade Saturday, 16 years after homosexuality was decriminalised on the Mediterranean island, where the influential Orthodox Church views non-heterosexual relations as sinful.
The march left the capital`s Eleftheria (Freedom) Square at around 6 pm (1500 GMT), with hundreds of waving and cheering people following a car decked with rainbow flags and blaring out music.
Police escorted the marchers, which included staff of embassies sponsoring the event, such as Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the United States, carrying their countries` flags.
Some 3,000 people took part in the event, according to police, exceeding the expectations of organisers Accept-LGBTI.
The march left the capital`s Eleftheria (Freedom) Square at around 6 pm (1500 GMT) and headed for a park behind parliament for a celebratory party.
A fringe group called the Cyprus Christian Orthodox Movement, including priests and monks, held a counter demonstration but police kept them at bay and out of trouble.
Accept`s head Costas Gavrielides hailed the march as proof Cypriot society "has progressed more than politicians think it has" and said it has made it possible "to open up a discussion" on the conservative island.
Accept has said that a bill legalising homosexual civil partnerships promised by the government last year has still not been submitted to parliament.
Austria`s ambassador, Karl Mueller, and his wife attended with beards painted on their faces, a nod to Conchita Wurst, the bearded Austrian transvestite who won this year`s Eurovision.
Kyriakos, 23, watched the march as it made its way through the city, but declined to take part himself saying: "It`s a very small country, everyone knows everyone and if I`m seen here, I`ll be labelled for life."
The influential Church of Cyprus has also reacted negatively to gays taking to the streets, saying it "regretted the behaviour and lifestyle of some of our fellow men."
The word of God condemns homosexuality, and such relationships are a "moral aberration", the church said, adding that it was not "a normal lifestyle choice."Yanos Petrou, an organiser of the rival event, said "we don`t have a problem with the persons but they want too much; they shouldn`t show those things" in public, referring to public displays of their homosexuality.
But Accept spokeswoman Joanna Constantinuou said it was better the parade took "the form of a march for our rights than another Mardi Gras," in reference to the annual carnival in the American city of New Orleans.
British actor Stephen Fry, in comments to the Cyprus Daily, had called for a widespread show of support from the Cypriot public.
"I invite the Church of Cyprus to join the civilised and educated and loving world, including Christian faiths... to recognise the natural, unthreatening nature of homosexuality," said Fry, who is openly homosexual and has campaigned for gay rights across the world, notably in Russia.
"I encourage all Cypriots of whatever sexuality to join in the Pride March to show their support for an open, free, tolerant and enlightened Cyprus," he said.
Veteran British pop icon George Michael, also gay, was born to conservative Greek Cypriots.
Accept-LGBTI says it is holding the march to combat prejudice against what it claims is "10 percent of the population, hence against 85,000 Cypriot compatriots."
A second bill is before the Cyprus parliament that would criminalise anti-gay hate speech.
Turkish Cypriots living in the breakaway north of divided Cyprus narrowly beat their fellow islanders in the internationally recognised south to the draw with a "Queer Cyprus ... Rainbow Walk" on May 17 in the northern sector of Nicosia, the world`s last divided capital.
But it was only this January that Turkish Cypriot deputies voted to legalise homosexuality.
Referring to homophobia on the island, Accept`s Andreou said: "It depends on where you live, but you can be sure of facing discrimination in the workplace."